Occupational Therapy Student Spotlight
Danielle Kessler started the MSOT program at Washington University in St. Louis in Fall 2016. She plans work with rehabilitating adults with neurological disorders (stroke victims, etc.). Here, she shares her experience—so far—as an MSOT student.
What’s the courseload like in terms of content?
Right now I’m in a summer session, which is an accelerated version of the spring semester, so I’m taking neuroscience, still learning assessments, and biomechanics. The spring semester was basically the same thing, but my first semester was all fundamentals—professional communication and the basics of research and statistics. I don’t know if every school does this, but at Wash U, after your first semester, you become part of a research lab, which can be clinical or research-focused.
What sort of time commitment is expected?
It is a full-time program. Right now, my Mondays are pretty light, from 10:30 to 3:00, but then there were some days during my first semester that were 8:00 am to 5:00 pm with a lunch break. And that doesn’t really account for outside work. Especially group projects have been a hassle to organize, because you have so many people doing different volunteer opportunities or doing different internships or being in different lab groups. You do have chunks of [free] time, like my Tuesdays are from 9:00 to 12:00, but that time is dedicated to your lab or projects.
There are people who have part-time jobs, who work weekends or at night or morning as personal care assistants, but it is definitely a full-time program
How many people are in your cohort?
Our class is 86, I think they accept around 90. I heard a rumor that they had a larger class for the incoming year but I’m not sure. I know a lot of programs are smaller; I think some programs I looked at were [only] 12 people and some are large as a hundred. You get a lot of variety with OT
How big are the actual classes?
We do have one large OT auditorium and the majority of classes take place there, but you’re also broken up into sections. This year we had two sections; I believe next year we’ll have three. So it’s broken up into 40-something [right now] and then it’ll be 30-something next year. And then for groups, we were assigned between seven to eight people in each group.
Are the sections and groups chosen randomly or based on what you want to specialize in?
The groups for our semester projects are randomly assigned. However for sections, even though they’re technically random, are based on when your lab coordinator has meetings.
What are the professors like?
A lot of the professors are research based. They actually have a lot of professors who have come up with their own models that are used in practice. They’re surprisingly not as intimidating as you would think. I wouldn’t say I’m afraid to speak to any of my professors. There are definitely some who know your name very quickly, so that’s good or bad depending on what kind of person you are.
Can you talk a little more about the research opportunities and work in the lab?
The labs offered are clinical-based or research-based. They have a student-run stroke lab, so that would be really interesting for anyone who is interested in working with clients who’ve had a stroke. It gives you a lot of great first-hand experience and a lot of those students learn the assessments quite early.
There’s also education and innovation labs doing research with professors on how to innovate the classes or how to make the school more efficient. There’s also community-based labs. The one I’m in is at a community practice, and we’re doing things like working with clients and setting them for wheelchairs based on their usage. I don’t know how many labs there are for sure, but there’s lots of them. Some are as little as one or two people and some are as big as 10 or 15.
Luckily, I got my first choice and there’s only one other person, my research partner in my lab, and we work very well together. We are very happy we got assigned to each other.
Is it competitive to get into those labs?
How it’s done, for us, is your first semester, you will go to lunches and hear the professors speak, and you’ll also be in touch with students who are currently in the labs. At the end of the semester you get a sheet of paper and you list your choices one through three. I don’t think anyone got less than their third choice or were asked to pick another one. I actually got my first choice, but I know a lot of people who got their second or third. I don’t know exactly the selection process is on that. Some labs do interviews; mine didn’t.
Will you switch to a different lab next year?
No, we’re doing these projects each for a year and a half, or two and a half years if you’re in the doctorate [program]. I do know a few people who switched labs but i don’t know the reasons behind that. That’s not usual; most people are really happy with their lab.
What’s the difference between the master’s program and the doctorate?
The OTD is the same thing, just one extra year. At Wash U, you can do either one. A lot of schools offer both. I think by 2025 they’re hoping to make it to a doctorate program only.
Are both the masters or the doctorate right now are available to someone with just a bachelor’s degree?
Yes. For my financial benefit, because I would be grandfathered in, I opted to do the master’s and if I think [getting an OTD] is something that will benefit me, I will go back later on.
How do your opportunities change if you have the master’s vs. the doctorate?
Not that much from my understanding. We have talked about this a lot—for teaching positions, it does open up. For faculty, especially since they are trying to switch over to OTD programs, a certain amount of the faculty have to have OTDs. If you’re looking to be a new hire, they will be looking for OTDs. The only salary change I know about is in the school district, and I’m assuming leadership opportunities would be more apparent with an OTD.
But as far as getting entry-level positions in a clinic or hospital, there’s not really much difference?
Not according to research at this time. That’s what all of us were asking, because we all had the opportunity to switch from a master’s to an OTD. Right now it doesn’t show a huge difference. That could change in the future.
Where did you go for undergrad and what did you study?
I went to San Diego State. I was a Nutrition major and I had a minor in sociology and an honors minor in interdisciplinary studies.
Why did you decide to pursue occupational therapy?
When I was in high school, I was pushed into nursing and I ended up getting my CNA license right out of high school when I was 17. It was a great experience, but it also made me realize that I really didn’t want to be a nurse. On kind of a whim, I switched to nutrition and I actually started volunteering at SDSU’s fitness clinic, which was geared more towards students who were pre-physical therapy. I was exploring my options, and my sister went to OT school around the time when I was trying to figure out my life. So I started volunteering at different outpatient clinics and I really enjoyed it.
Do you remember where else you applied for graduate schools?
Yes, USC, Ohio State, University of Washington, and San Jose State.
Why did you pick Washington University?
Well, it’s currently ranked number one. I was in between Ohio State, Wash U, and USC. I can’t emphasize enough to people to get their applications in early. I did not and I got waitlisted for all three. By the time I heard from [Ohio State], I think it was just a month before they start in the summer so I was not ready for that. At USC, I would have been living at home and I didn’t feel like that would have been the best opportunity for me.
What do you enjoy most about the program?
I really enjoy my lab. I also really enjoy the cohort; everyone in my class is very supportive, to the point where it’s kind of a dysfunctional family who knows way too much information on everyone. Like every single person knows everything. But it’s a very close family and it’s great.
What do you enjoy least?
Well, I would have to say some of the course load. That’s expected of every grad school you will ever go to, but there are some days or some weeks, like for my lab yesterday I worked from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm without stopping and I hadn’t started even my class work that’s due this upcoming week. There’s a lot of work; you rely on yourself to have great time management. Some of the classes you really have to work on and dedicate yourself.
What were you expecting out of the program? Have those expectations been met?
I was expecting to learn about the different aspects of OT. It’s in the school system, it’s in hospitals, it’s in community practice. And [learning the] different assessments for each realm, and I was expecting to learn what I want to do in that practice. Wash U gives you the opportunities to work or to volunteer or do fieldwork in every aspect, so it’s really up to the person to take charge and figure that out.
I have definitely benefited a lot from their connections, and even the places that I volunteer at separately are connected through Wash U or at least have Wash U connections.
I have gotten what I expected. I’d say my first semester was a little frustrating because we were working on a lot of fundamentals—communication or research specifics—so I really didn’t feel like I was getting the OT things. After my spring semester, I got a better and more full picture.
Has anything about the program or about the school surprised you
I think was surprised by how much time I spent doing lab work. Oh, I knew we were working with cadavers; I did not realize I was going to be the one cutting it open. That was a little surprising. But in general I think I knew what to expect. I toured here before I officially decided and because my sister had gone through the process before, I knew what to ask and what I was looking for.
How should someone prepare to be a strong candidate?
I would tell everyone to prep for the GRE decently far in advance to give yourself some wiggle room. Find volunteer opportunities within the community, in different places, to figure out the different settings of OT and prepare yourself for what you want. I volunteered at a school district; I don’t think I will ever work in school districts but it was a great experience for me. Prepare yourself in every aspect possible. I know this isn’t required for most schools, but taking a medical terminology class [is helpful]. Also, talk to OTs, make appointments, send emails—figure out if it’s really what you want, just become better connected.
For majors, I wouldn’t worry about that. Every school I’ve talked to really does like diversity. There’s someone in my program who’s a dance major. Of course you’re going to have your psychology majors and your kinesiology majors; I’m one of two nutrition majors. There’s a wide variety of interests and I think that just shows how broad OT can be.
So if you weren’t in a health or science based major you would just take some extra classes?
Yeah, you would take prereqs while you were applying or before you apply. Most of the prereqs are physics, anatomy, different life science classes.
And what about any requirements to have research or observation hours?
For observation hours, every school has their own requirements. I’ve seen as little as 20 hours required and as much as a hundred. I would just get as much observation as possible. A lot of schools require it in two different disciplines, so I did one in outpatient rehab, one in early intervention, and one school-based.
For research, none of the schools that I applied to required it; however, in their supplemental applications they ask if you have done it. I’m sure that would be helpful, but it’s not a requirement. Observation hours is definitely a requirement.
Did you take time off after you graduated?
I took a year off. I had to take the physics class, and I also took a statistics class, because my physics class from college was AP credit and that doesn’t count for grad school. I lived with my parents so I was saving money; I worked part-time and I baby-sat and continued with observation hours. I also know a lot of people who worked at schools that were specific for children with disabilities. There’s a lot of people who did research part-time during their year off, and then we also have students who are older and have had a past career. For OT, you don’t really have a formula. Every single person’s story, from their major to their observation hours, are completely different.
What else would you tell someone who’s in undergrad who’s considering occupational therapy?
Just to start early, looking into places you can observe. Find at least one or two [places] because you may not like one setting, but you may fall in love with another. Talk to somebody about your interests, observe or volunteer, to really see what it takes. The master’s is expensive, and so is the doctorate, this is really an investment in your future. Get the experience, get the observation, see if this is really something you wanna do.
What do you wish you’d known before applying?
Oh my gosh, apply early. I waited until the last minute for some of the deadlines and I wasn’t aware of a lot of them had rolling admissions—roughest few months of my life. So start early, take things early for the GRE—I would recommend taking it earlier rather than later, giving yourself time to study. Do not wait until the last minute.
What do you plan to do when you graduate?
I hope to work with rehabilitating adults with neurological disorders, so after a stroke—working on what they want to do, what they can accomplish, how to maintain or recover those meaningful activities. I don’t think that’s really an entry-level position, so hopefully I will get field work that’s based in that and get as much experience as possible. But I want to work with adults in an outpatient setting.
What would you tell an incoming student to do while in the program?
Show up to class all the time. Pay attention as much as possible. Especially for the first few weeks, be on your best behavior. There are professors who will sit in the back of the room observing, so don’t be so obvious about being online or checking your phone. Impressions do matter with faculty. Introduce yourself to faculty who are in fields of practice that you’re interested in. If you’re interested in shadowing make that a goal—you can shadow different professors. For our program, look at fieldwork thoroughly; I’m sure that’s for every program. Look at your fieldwork opportunities, because for some you have to be locked in over a year in advance or a year and a half in advance.
Do you feel like the tuition will be worth it?
I hope so, yes.
Are you using grants, loans, or scholarships to pay for school?
Most of the people I talk to from Wash U get at least a partial scholarship and I did as well. Also I’m on federal loans; I did not do private loans. My measly savings when pretty quick, so yeah…loans.
If you could go back to when you were deciding on schools, would you still pick this occupational therapy program at Washington?
Yes, I would. I enjoy my cohort, I enjoy the people I’m around and I like what i’m learning in my lab.